Sir Walter Scott, in his review of Austens Emma, observes that the "authors knowledge of the world . . . reminds us something of the merits of the Flemish school of painting. The subjects are not often elegant, and certainly never grand; but they are finished up to nature, and with a precision which delights the reader" (369). To explain the different positions of the community of Highbury in the two 1996 films of Emma, let us start with a comparison to two Flemish painters that spring to mind. The Miramax film of Emma, written and directed by Douglas McGrath and starring Gwyneth Paltrow, is like the work of Vermeer. In his pictures, we see the artists gaze focus on the details of genteel life and on subjects that project calm self-possession. "The Music Lesson," for example, focuses contemplatively on two people surrounded by the trappings of tasteful gentry lifea viola da gamba, a virginal, and a Turkish carpetcomplementing the calm, confident, and independent subjects in the portrait, the womans face reflected in a mirror. The Meridian telefilm of Emma with Kate Beckinsale (screenplay by Andrew Davies and directed by Diarmuid Lawrence), by contrast, has something of Bruegel to it, perhaps his "Wedding Feast." This painting is communal, filled with many people, both young and old, in the actions of everyday lifeeating, talking, drinkingand it opens out toward the viewers, inviting them into the society. Neither Bruegels communal nor Vermeers individual visions, however, can represent Austens complex novel accurately. Nonetheless, one can see the work of these artists as the extremes toward which the cinematic versions tend. Making Emma into a film requires portraying Emmas social context and placing her as a focal point, but the limitations of the genre inhibit the detailed attention to both a novel can give.
One could argue that Emma is simultaneously the most individual and most social of Austens six major novels. It is the only one named after its heroine and the only one that sticks entirely to one communityHighbury. Frank Churchill may head to London for his haircut and piano purchasing, but the readers never do. One might also claim that this novel has the most sympathetic portrayal of the heroines hometownwhich is odd, given that the people occupying it (Mr. Elton, Mr. Woodhouse, Miss Bates) are not terribly attractive. Yet passages of pleased observation appear in Emma that seem unusual for Austen:
An image of Emmas content with the small sphere of Highbury is important, given the conclusion of the novel. This novel offers no disruption of the community, which every other Austen novel seems to entail. The function of the Highbury community is to provide the setting for the resolution: that is, Emma accepts her position within the community and does not flee from it into marriage. Contrast this conclusion with Merytons role in Pride and Prejudice. Even the estate of Mansfield Park suffers a slightly greater degree of disruption at the end of the novel, as Fanny Price gets her sister Susan to take her place with Lady Bertram.
But Emma will remain within Highbury and Hartfield, and that means we must accept her in the company of Mrs. Elton and her father as part of the happy endingwe name these two figures because the end of the novel reminds the reader that these people in particular will be presentno retreat to Derbyshire as Elizabeth Bennet manages. In fact, Mr. Woodhouse (the most immobile character of all) becomes the static center-point toward which the plot resolves, as Mr. Knightley moves in with him and Emma.
Usually in romances, Austens included, marriage is not reward enough for the heroine. She gets wealth, a higher position in society, escape from an intolerable situationsome sort of bonus to confirm the happiness of the conclusion. Not in Emma. At least the social setting can provide no significant reward. So, if the community of Highbury cannot provide the additional reward, what bonus beyond Mr. Knightley does Emma get? Why, just what she ought, of course: self-knowledge. Between the mental distance Emma travels and the physical immobility she accepts, we can see how carefully this novel balances between being one about a society and being one about an individual.
The two recent films unbalance the novel into two different directions, which is all right since a two-hour adaptation cannot and should not try to do everything. The community around Highbury does not clinch the happy ending in the novel because Emma has that community to begin with. By the end of the novel, Emma has only Augusta Elton (lamenting the pitiful lack of white satin at the wedding) as a significant addition to her circle, and she loses Harriet Smith, "which was not to be regretted" (482). Though Emma finally comes to appreciate Jane Fairfax, that lady departs Highbury, to return to the Campbells and prepare for marriage to Frank Churchill. Not so in the Davies film: the community does provide the joyous conclusion. Any mention of Frank and Janes departure is omitted, and Harriet and Robert Martin are welcomed into the company of the gentlefolk, with no sense of contact to be diminished. Though the last shot in the telefilm is of turkey thieves, reminding us there is still trouble in paradise, the images before that generally reinforce a sense of expanded community as the clincher for the happy ending.
The finale of the McGrath film is conventional and focuses attention on the beautiful heroine and her reward, Mr. Knightley, by showing the wedding. The Davies screenplay, however, concludes with a Bruegelesque harvest supper that greatly changes the focus since we now see Emma within her world with all its social classes. In addition, the three betrothed couples (of assorted social classes themselves) join in a traditional dramatic emblem of unity, a country dance. As the director notes, the dance is intended to show the "three couples, whove been cast asunder, now happily with their partners, and backed up by a harmonious society" (Lawrence 60, italics ours). We get to see a scene in which Mrs. Elton is affronted by Emmas more egalitarian social recognition of Robert Martin. A fuller acceptance of her community is exactly what Emma, in contrast to Mrs. Elton, achieves in this film. The harmony at the conclusion of the Davies production comes as a relief after all the social disjunction that film has been careful to show us. Admittedly, the McGrath film shows Emma interacting with members of other social classes in various waysvisiting the sick and the poor, grappling with gypsiesbut these scenes serve to advance the plot, not to clarify Emmas place within her world; therefore, the finale need not strive for conspicuous social unity. It is the Davies film that has the fuller picture of the society that surrounds the heroine, a picture that emphasizes connections within classes as well as the disjunctions between them.
Both films depict the presence of servants at the various households, but in the McGrath version, they appear quickly, announcing visitors, often in the background and without attracting the viewers attention. The Davies production, by contrast, positions servants as the particular objects of our gaze. Davies himself remarked that Austens novel is "unusual" for presenting a "working model of a whole societywith some fascinating glimpses of the underclass" ("Austens Horrible Heroine"). His filmic version of the novel expands this glimpse. We cannot overlook the servants dressed in magnificent livery, easing the relaxations of the gentry still further by their efforts. This juxtaposition appears in the Box Hill scene, as the servants struggle up the slope carrying the table and elaborate equipment for the al fresco lunch, and in the strawberry-picking scene, when servants provide the ladies cushions on which to kneel so that they need not make contact with garden soil. It is precisely such social divisions that require the finale of the harvest supper at Donwell, where upper class and lower class can enjoy mutual conviviality as they celebrate the "wholeness in the community" (Davies, "Final" 58). That scene is hardly one of egalitarianism, but we do get a sense that one of the improvements that Emma receives is a lessening of her snobbery, though the snobbery is inherent in the social system. Such a conclusion is not unexpected: As Carol Dole has noted, costume dramas produced in the context of modern British socialism often feel the need to comment critically about the class system (60), much in the way that contemporary American films about the past tend to be self-conscious about slavery and racial prejudice. Not surprisingly, then, the British production of Emma pays great attention to the situation of the serving classes in Regency Surrey whereas the American production glosses over their existence.
More subtle than the portrayal of divisions between the classes, however, are the attempts to depict the social structure within the gentry itself. No film of Emma could avoid a plethora of parties and dances, for that is where much of the plot occurs. Indeed both films, like Vermeers paintings, display much finery for us to admire. But the Davies Emma seems concerned with also showing us the complex structures that bind families and a community together. The McGrath version seems more concerned with showing us Gwyneth Paltrowwell, Emma herselffor in that film, the important relationships all stem from and to her.
One can see something of this difference from the percentage of the dialogue each character is allotted:
First of all, note that Gwyneth Paltrow as Emma has a higher percentage of the lines (41%) than Kate Beckinsale as Emma (33%). More impressionistically, we would say that the camera focuses on Paltrow more in silent moments, too. As Nora Nachumi has indicated, Paltrow, the famous beauty, is more conspicuously posed for the camera than the rival Emma (135-36). For example, when Emma is checking the mail for an invitation from the Coles, McGrath places her on a Grecian sofa flanked by two potted trees and backed by white drapery. It is not just that this Emma has more lines and gets more attention from the camera; the rest of her family have far fewer lines to interrupt the focus upon her. Mr. Woodhouse drops from 6% of the lines in the Davies film to 3% in the McGrath film. Emmas sister and brother-in-law, John and Isabella Knightley, almost vanish from the film (Kaplan 183). Another way that the McGrath film focuses upon Emma is to reduce the secondary romance, that between Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax. Frank is the most reduced character of all, sliding from 11% of the dialogue in one film to 4% in the other, and Jane Fairfax also diminishes from 3% to 1% of the speeches.
A small and subtle alteration in the plot between the two versions also makes the point about the tighter focus upon Emmas problems when Paltrow plays her. In the novel, after the unfortunate trip to Box Hill, Emma feels terrible about her treatment of Miss Bates and, therefore, goes to call upon her, her mother, and Jane Fairfax the next day:
As for Emmas reaction to this little scene, "She had a moments fear of Miss Bates keeping away from her. But Miss Bates soon cameVery happy and obligedbut Emmas conscience told her that there was not the same cheerful volubility as beforeless ease of look and manner" (378). Austen teases us with our expectation that Miss Bates should be the one avoiding Emma, but in fact, Jane Fairfax is the one avoiding her. The next chapter shows Emmas repeated and frustrated attentions to Jane, and we eventually understand the reason for the refusal of these assiduities: Jane is upset with Emma for her and Frank Churchills having "flirted together excessively" (368) at Box Hillthis flirtation on Franks part, unknown to Emma, being the result of a quarrel between the lovers.
This sequence of interactions between Emma, Miss Bates, and Jane Fairfax appears pretty straightforward in the Davies film (if in reduced form), including a striking visual image that corresponds to these lines in the novel:
The Davies film places more interest on the problems of Jane for their own sakeperhaps even more than the novel can, restricted as it is (more or less) to Emmas viewpoint. Certainly the shot of Jane Fairfax walking across the fields weeping while being observed sympathetically by Robert Martin makes us interested in her problems and reminds us of his blighted romance. Both these characters have been hurt, inadvertently, by Emma, and this telefilm is interested in their reactions in the way the McGrath movie is not.
The McGrath film, in contrast, makes Miss Bates the one who is trying to avoid Emma. Emma is pointedly avoided at the Bates home, and we follow her sad and humiliated figure as she walks away. Why the plot change? Because this film is really concerned with Emmas feelings and not with the effect Emma has on others. The scene at the Bates home becomes a part of Emmas education in noblesse oblige, a necessary step on her way to becoming a chivalric Mrs. Knightley, not a clue to Jane Fairfaxs situation.
This version, to be fair, does not merely cut other characters to make way for Emma. The roles of Mr. Knightley and Harriet Smith persist at the same (or slightly expanded) level of attention and that of Mrs. Weston noticeably increases. These three characters do not diminish because these are the ones in whom Emma confides. This film relies upon scenes of tête-à-têtes to illustrate the character of Paltrows Emma, and Mrs. Weston functions as her confidante, drawing her out so that we can see Emmas thinking processes on display. Of course, Beckinsale as Emma also appears in intimate conversations, particularly with Miss Smith, Mr. Knightley, and Mr. Churchill, but Mrs. Weston is seen mostly with her husband within the larger social occasions of parties and has only two private conversations with Emma.
As the novel frequently takes us inside Emmas head, so must the films at least occasionally accomplish this maneuver, even though the form cannot perform this task so adeptly. The speaking roles are not the only indicator of Gwyneth Paltrows dominance of the film: even when we get inside Emmas mind in both scripts, we sense the greater concern with the solitary reactions of title character in the McGrath version and the more socially enmeshed quality of the Davies version. McGrath accomplishes the trick of admitting us to Emmas private thoughts by showing her writing in her diary and simultaneously giving us a Paltrow voice-over that explains what the young woman is writing: an entry in which she wonders whether she is in love with Frank Churchill. McGrath even gives the shot a Vermeer quality by shooting her reflected in a mirror. We get to watch Emma watch herself as she dreams. In the Davies version, on the other hand, we get to experience Emmas fantasies from her point of view: we see through her eyes (and the cameras lens) as Mr. Elton thanks Emma for uniting him with Harriet, and later we see Frank Churchills portrait smiling at us (and Emma). We become, for a moment, Emma watching other characters. For McGrath, the reactions are solely Emmas: she remains the end point of a chain of occurrences, and the camera focuses on Paltrow. For Davies, the fantasies require the images of other characters on screen, which grants them a certain importance. Even the nightmare inflicted upon Emmaa vision of Mr. Knightleys marriage to Jane Fairfaxshifts her concern from the personal to the social. "What about little Henry?" she cries aloud in church as she clutches her nephews hand, worried about the line of inheritance of Donwell Abbey (presumably this represents a sublimation of her own desires). Her imaginings place Emma in social situations, surrounded by family and friends. Daviess Emma is not the end-point of this film or the sole focus of the camera even in the sequences that reveal her hidden thoughts. In other words, the events that occur end with their effect upon Emma in the McGrath film, whereas the implications of events in the Davies version reflect through Emmas mind and back onto society.
One may suspect the different emphases derive from the greater American influence on the Miramax film as opposed to the Meridian/Arts and Entertainment production. The feature film promotes a rising star, Gwyneth Paltrow, whereas the telefilm sits more comfortably within the British tradition of ensemble work. Beyond this, however, the two versions of Emma represent two different and legitimate visions of the novel: one more concerned with what happens in the society, the other more in tune with what happens to the individual. Austens novel has the luxury of presenting both visions simultaneously; a film, however, must limit its scope.
To phrase the difference more generically, one might say that the Davies film is a comedy, in the literary sense. It is about the reestablishment of order in society after Emmas attempts at matchmaking, about building tighter bonds within the community. The McGrath film is more of a romance, in the modern sense: Paltrow gets the dishier-looking Mr. Knightley (played by Jeremy Northam). But let us not underrate romance. Austens novel is both comedy and romance, and in so far as it is a romance, Emma must reward its heroine, and it happens to do so by granting her increased understanding as well as the hero. The tighter focus of McGraths version allows the audience to focus upon Emma and her personal improvement. Indeed, it is hard not to focus on Gwyneth Paltrow in this film: one is glad to see her inner character become truly worthy of her Vermeer-like exterior. In contrast, the more socially-oriented British production, with the less conventionally beautiful Kate Beckinsale playing Emma, makes the audience concentrate on a wider scene, replacing a portrait of Emma with a Bruegelesque group painting that abounds with good will.